Mercifully, bettors forget fast, forget whether the 5-horse that ran down the track with their money was Skedaddle Sue or Sippin Brew or Something New. But the 23,198 who went racing at Hialeah Park last Saturday won't forget Seattle Slew for a very long while. He clobbered the best 3-year-olds that could be mustered in the 48th Flamingo Stakes, strolling past the winning post with a four-length lead after having spurted 10 lengths up on his closest rivals as he rolled into the homestretch.
Seattle Slew has won all five of his starts and, believe it, he may well be a superhorse. To hype its gate, Hialeah ran television and radio spots that asked, "Is Seattle Slew as fast as Secretariat?" Judging from their records at the same stage, Slew is better. Why? Because he is undefeated. Secretariat had been beaten in one of his nine starts as a 2-year-old and would lose again before the Derby.
The Flamingo winner has faced 50 rivals and beaten them by more than 100 lengths. When he was purchased at auction 20 months ago, he cost only $17,500 (in part because he has a slew foot, his right fore). Today the colt's value is close to $7 million (Secretariat was syndicated for $6.08 million in March of his 3-year-old season). Five weeks from now, Slew will go to the post in the Kentucky Derby as an overwhelming favorite, and the only real question about that race seems to be the number of colts willing to contest second.
Last weekend, from New York to California, animals were trying to earn their way to Churchill Downs. At Aqueduct, Cormorant won the $54,000 Bay Shore in lackluster fashion, while Habitony won the $199,000 Santa Anita Derby. However, neither seems to have the wondrous speed of Seattle Slew. Nor are they box-office draws, which Slew seems destined to be.
April 4, 1977
Thirty minutes before the Flamingo he was led out of his barn on the backstretch and was walked in three lazy circles by his groom. Eight photographers were snapping pictures of him. The colt took 10 steps, stopped and lifted his head. Click. Click. He took 15 steps more and stopped, tail waving. Click. Click. As he walked under the canopy of Australian pines leading to the paddock, Jimmy Jones, the trainer of Calumet Farm during the glory years of Citation, Coaltown, Two Lea, Tim Tarn and Iron Liege, watched Slew closely. "Well, well," Jones said, "that sure is no common critter." No matter if he has a decidedly common name.
That seems to be the case this year with the Derby runners. The list of Churchill Downs nominees starts with Abba Cap and ends with Yack Yack. In between are 295 colts and fillies with dime-store tags, though they are worth many millions of dollars. Among them: A Gypsy Says, A Letter To Harry, Where Is Paul, Brooks Brother, Cuzwuzwrong (who won the California Derby), Clev Er Tell (who won the Louisiana Derby two weeks ago) and Run Dusty Run (who finished second in the Fair Grounds race).
Karen and Mickey Taylor, the young couple who owns Slew, explain his name by saying they come from a town near Seattle (White Swan, which has a population of 600), and the man who selected the colt for them, their vet and advisor Jim Hill, lives near Florida swampland called a slew. Perhaps the Taylors would have thought longer or harder about the matter had they known the colt by Bold Reasoning out of My Charmer would be a headliner.
The Taylors have been in racing just four years and have had superior luck. They went to the right man at the start. Wanting a runner for the West Coast, they approached Allen Jerkens, perhaps the wisest trainer in the East. He showed them a grass horse named Triangular and said they could have him for $50,000. "Take him and run him for a while and if he doesn't do good by you, just give him back at no cost," Jerkens said. The Taylors shipped Triangular west and he won his first start. And his second. Later he won a stake. "We didn't know anything about horse racing then," says Karen Taylor. "And we really didn't get lucky with Triangular. We got lucky with Allen Jerkens. When Triangular won races, I sent pictures of him to Mr. Jerkens. He didn't have to help us, we were nobodies. He just went ahead and did it.
The Taylors have had bad luck, too, but it never is mentioned, never surfaces in their conversation. In 1975 they had a fine 2-year-old named Lexington Laugh, a horse they hoped would carry their colors in the Kentucky Derby. "We named him Lexington Laugh because we had gone to Lexington and had a lot of laughs there," says Karen. "I went crazy over the horse. I got too deeply involved. I'd sleep in front of his stall. He was a good horse, and sound. But he kept running up against Telly's Pop and lost several times. We ran him in the Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita that fall. Telly's Pop won the race, but Laugh was in contention as the field neared the top of the stretch. He had trouble changing leads on the turn and broke his leg. Mickey and Dr. Hill both said Laugh had to be put down, but I couldn't let them do it. I knew he could never run again but I wanted him saved. I wanted to keep him in the backyard and be able to look out the window and see him. He was operated on and lived for two months, but he finally had to be destroyed.
"I now know that I did the wrong thing. I was thinking of what was good for me and not for the horse. It was selfish and wrong. I promised myself that I would never again get attached to a horse if we ever came up with another good one. We will only do what is best for Seattle Slew. He will not run to set records. Breaking records means broken legs."
Two hours after Slew won the Flamingo, the Taylors, Dr. Hill, Jockey Jean Cruguet and Trainer Billy Turner were celebrating in the barn area of the racetrack. "We have the movies of Slew's 2-year-old wins," Karen said, "and at Christmastime we showed them over and over. Just about everybody at home saw those races. We'd run the tapes and lift a glass. We had 44 friends and relatives come down to the Flamingo, and if we are lucky enough to get to the Derby I don't know how many more friends might show up in Louisville. Mickey is in the logging business and there will be a lot of loggers there. Mickey's dad, Chet, is serving as the caretaker for the horse. He guards Slew and even watches television with him. We want Seattle Slew to run as a 4-year-old so the public can see him. I know that the crowds are going to get bigger, but I think we can handle that. When Slew won the Eclipse award as the top 2-year-old of last season, we looked around at the dinner in Los Angeles and realized that there were many people there who hadn't been as lucky as we had been. Many had been in racing for years and years, and when they sat down at their tables we noticed them leafing through their programs and as they read about us, turning quiet. Here we were getting an award after so little time. It made us happy, sure, but a little sad, too, for the others. I guess the thing we remember is that Allen Jerkens thought enough of us to want us to come into racing in the first place."
It was close to 8 p.m. when the Taylors prepared to leave the Hialeah back-stretch. Karen walked to the stall door and looked in. She raised her hand and said, "So long, Slew."
There were few skeptics anywhere in Miami that night. One might wonder if the colt will be able to run the mile-and-a-quarter Derby distance in front all the way. Certainly he had no trouble with the mile-and-an-eighth Flamingo, turning in the third-fastest time in the history of the race—1:47[2/5]. Only Honest Pleasure (1:46[4/5] in 1976) and Bold Ruler (1:47 in 1957) were swifter, and those horses are both famous for not having won Kentucky Derbies. But Slew is far from his peak. The Flamingo was only his second start as a 3-year-old. In his first, a seven-furlong Hialeah event on March 9, he set a track record of 1:20[3/5]. He went the first six furlongs that afternoon in 1:08, also record time.
Slew now ships to New York. His next start probably will be in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 23, where his toughest competition should be Cormorant, a son of His Majesty, who has six wins in a row. "Last year," says Billy Turner, "some horsemen who should know told me that Cormorant was good. It came as no shock to me when he won the Bay Shore."
If Cormorant is not the real thing, Clev Er Tell could be, and Run Dusty Run should not be discounted. Clev Er Tell won the Louisiana Derby by running in front all the way, equaling the track record with a 1:48[4/5] for the mile-and-an-eighth. It was his sixth win at the Fair Grounds this winter. He is trained by 68-year-old Homer Pardue, who was born across from the quarter pole at Churchill Downs. Pardue saw his first Derby in 1925. He plans to run Clev Er Tell in the Arkansas Derby before going on to Kentucky. It is the same route Pardue took with No Le Hace, who finished a good second to Riva Ridge in 1970.
Most people with Derby aspirants have thought Run Dusty Run a threat since last September, when he won five of six starts, including the Arlington-Washington Futurity and the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs. Dusty's Louisiana Derby run was not smooth. He broke inward at the start and was bumped later by A Letter To Harry. Still, Run Dusty Run was not making up appreciable ground in the stretch. He will appear next in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 28.
Normally, one looks to the Florida races to find potential Derby winners. This year's Florida Derby was raced in two divisions and won by Ruthie's Native and Coined Silver. Ruthie's Native took his half by running in front, while Coined Silver came from far back. Both battled Seattle Slew in the Flamingo. Ruthie's Native ran forwardly placed before dropping back to finish 12th. Coined Silver wound up a struggling sixth. The horse closest to Seattle Slew was Giboulee, which means "little storm" in French. Like Seattle Slew, the Flamingo was only his second outing of the year. At two he won four of 13 Canadian starts. He could improve. He could run up a bigger storm, but he'll need a mighty wind to blow by the Taylors' colt.
The Santa Anita Derby winner Habitony was the 2-to-1 favorite and came from 19 lengths off the pace to score by three lengths. The colt, bred in Ireland and bought for $49,000 a year ago, won't extend himself if the track surface stings his feet and sometimes pulls himself up when he reaches the lead, so it is none too certain that he will make the trip to Churchill Downs.
Within the next few weeks Derby horses will come and go, and some will hide from Seattle Slew. Hiding may be the smart thing to do.